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Line between mentorship and rivalry blurs in whip-smart 'Stories'

THEATER REVIEW: "Collected Stories" by American Blues Theater at the Biograph ★★★½

Chris Jones

3:20 PM CDT, April 28, 2013

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It's axiomatic that success in the business, academic or creative worlds — heck, success in life in general — comes much more easily to those who are lucky enough to have a powerful, caring mentor. It's fun to be a mentor. One feels like one has purpose. But what happens when the student outperforms the professor, the fellow eclipses the executive director? What happens when the pursuing sycophant becomes the one widely pursued and the lonely teacher finds his career on a slide?

One of the more astute observations in "Collected Stories," the carefully plotted, wise, literate and insightful two-character drama by Donald Margulies all about this very subject, is that such a transition is inevitable. The only meaningful question is how all parties will handle it: grace and respect, ideally, rather than bitterness and resentment. For the mentor surely will shuffle off this mortal coil, an event typically preceded by some years of declining centrality in the zeitgeist. Even the most prolific and creative person runs up against the one wall none of us can avoid: the lack of time. And, at some point, merely staring out at a mentee only makes you think of that more. Ah, for the unfettered possibilities of youth! That — and the sense of a former student, a callow inferior copy buoyed by the beauty of youth, stealing the very insights you once handed out freely — is why the dispensing of that preferred grace can, in practice, be very, very challenging

Margulies, a writer who has taught more than his share of playwrights who've turned out more successful than him, certainly knows this treacherous terrain. And I suspect that one of the reasons the American Blues Theater production of this 1997 play is so darn on-the-money is that this peril also sits right in the wheelhouse of many involved therein.

For one thing, this production has been directed by the mother-and-daughter team of Mary Ann and Jessica Thebus, who I suspect know some of this stuff for themselves. Ruth — the modestly successfully writer-teacher of fiction whose student Lisa arrives for a tutorial at her New York apartment to suck her dry — is played by Carmen Roman, one of those imposing Chicago stage actresses who is looked up to by young actresses. But for how long? Hmm. Even Gwendolyn Whiteside, who plays Lisa, is at coming toward the end of a certain period of her career — she's now half a Lisa, half a Ruth. And Whiteside is savvy enough to put all of that in play.

And thus "Collected Stories," which charts (a tad neatly, perhaps) the relationship of these two women over several years, is a rather delicious and admirably honest couple of hours, moving easily between the many lighter moments when Margulies is satirizing the insecurities of the creative classes, both young and old, and the darker themes, when Roman's Ruth literally has to stare down her own mortality, like a West Village King Lear. No wonder this role has attracted some fine actors, including Uta Hagen. It is a juicy part, indeed, and Roman is every inch the imposing, intimidating teacher who has cultivated precisely that image — only, toward the end, to start to realize she has handed a shovel to a young woman who just might dig her grave.

Whiteside certainly changes as the play demands — gradually acquiring self-confidence (that stalking horse of malevolent ambition), and that slightly smug love of success that all successful writers acquire even as they insist they have changed not a jot. With the help of the Thebuses (Thebi?), Whiteside dances exactly the right delicate dance of charm, innocence and manipulation, allowing the play to work as Margulies surely intended, which is to say that we're never quiet sure if Roman is just paranoid or right to be afraid.

It's one of the great questions in life, isn't it? For sure, these matters, with pleasurable accessories, are simply but deftly explored in an intimate, classy, involving, well-acted production (there also is an elegant set from Sarah E. Ross) at the Richard Christiansen Theater. "Collected Stories" seems, like Margulies, to be very much back in vogue. Mentors have to be watched: they can rise up off the canvas, gloves reattached.

cjones5@tribune.com

Through May 19 at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes; tickets: $10-$49 at 773-871-3000 or americanbluestheater.com